London 2007

Borough Market
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

It’s three years since I was last in Britain and I was curious to see what might have changed in the food scene. I’ve tried to keep up, reading the Observer Food Monthly as often as possible (I prefer the paper version rather than just browsing articles online) and paying attention to discussions on eGullet. It wasn’t hard to miss the popularity of gastropubs, the growth of decent chocolatiers, and the burgeoning enthusiasm for organics. (I last lived in Britain at the turn of the millenium and saw the beginnings of the organic boom there.) Below are some observational tidbits.

Organics and markets

Daylesford Organic

A fairly new chain of organic lifestyle stores in the UK (not to be confused with a grower in Australia). The emphasis at Daylesford Organic is primarily on food, but they also stock other items (homewares). I visited the store in Pimlico – a large store over three floors, with very clean, minimalist appearance (polished stone surfaces, pale timber, white white white). The ground floor contained an eatery (absolutely bustling on a Saturday morning) and fresh produce, while upstairs were honeys, oils and other edibilia, plus homewares. It won’t come as a surprise to you that the prices were, well, hhhhigh… which is not to disparage the impressive range of products.

At the back left of the ground floor were refrigerated displays of dairy and other products, including some very pretty gull eggs. A lady was carefully filling a six-egg carton. As she walked past me, I asked her what she would use them for.

‘Oh they make a wonderful omelette,’ she said. ‘The flavour is lovely. Though probably not enough to justify the expense.’

I wandered over to the cabinet and finally saw the price tag. GBP 3.50 (A$8.75) per egg.

Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market

Opposite Daylesford Organic is an island of concrete and trees. This is Orange Square, the site for the weekly Saturday farmers market. A modest market, with approximately 20 stalls. (The London Farmers’ Markets website lists 42 vendors, but this is a far cry from the number there on my visit.) Juice is a popular item. Fresh, variety-specific apple and pear juices. Some meat and cheese stalls, bread, flowers and veg. The produce was interesting and generally of good quality, but not all stall-holders were able to answer (fairly basic) questions about their produce.

Markets require planning and control, so there are often quotas on how many competing stalls there can be. The rather perverse result is that some stall-holders sell ‘unauthorised’ wares under the counter.

Marylebone Farmers’ Market

This one is a Sunday market. Definitely larger than Pimlico’s, there are about 40 stalls. Produce variety is slightly greater, though I saw more ready-to-eat food here than at Pimlico. Some overlap in vendors between the two markets, which probably shouldn’t be surprising.
Marylebone Farmers
The greatest happiness came with the discovery of a stall selling unpasteurised milk. Descriptions of fresh (raw) milk often talk about the warmth and creaminess of the milk. Unfortunately, I find warm milk quite vile, so the thought of warm, thick, tasty milk has never been a marketing success in my books. Thank goodness the Grove Farm Hollesley Bay Dairy were offering tastings, chilled. The milk was, well, not at all vile. Not special either. Just nice, cold milk with more cream. We bought a bottle.
Real milk
Look at the cream
Close by, on Moxon Street, is the London butcher and charcuterer The Ginger Pig, renowned for raising their own livestock, thus controlling the entire foodchain for most of the products they sell. They also have a refreshingly blunt philosophy about this process:

We need to move on from our obsession with the word ‘organic’, which is now less about product than about lifestyle. From planting the seed to harvesting the crop, from breeding the animal to feeding it and slaughtering, we oversee the whole process. We’re not selling a lifestyle. We’re selling food. (Read more)

A few doors up from The Ginger Pig is La Fromagerie, a grocer and café with an impressive cheese room. The website has numerous pictures that give a good feel for the place, and a great cheese search engine. Sensibly, the number of people permitted into the cheese room was limited. The café space was bustling and the food smelt good. Although the appearance of La Fromagerie and Daylesford Organic are very different (earthy, rustic modern vs stark modern), I’d say the clientele is fairly similar.
La Fromagerie London

Borough Market

I’ve heard far too many people rave about Borough Market. It seems to be a writer’s duty to mention it with enthusiasm (if the number of mentions in articles, interviews and live talks is anything to go by). While living in London about six years ago (as the market’s popularity was on the rise, thanks in no small part to Jamie Oliver), I went to Borough Market twice. It was not impressive for someone used to Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market.

I had resolved to give the place a third chance. So many years had passed and people were still enthusing. Maybe something had changed. I went.
Borough Market views
Six years ago I found Borough Market to have a disproportionate number of takeaway food stalls and not enough produce for real people. Sure, you could buy Austrian jams for wildly inflated prices (perhaps three times the retail price in Austria) and organic chocolate truffles for a cool GBP 100 (A$250) per kg (if memory serves me right), but this wasn’t a market for the everyman/woman.
Borough Market French cheesemonger
I was so happy to see a number of well-stocked cheesemongers with knowledgeable, engaging staff offering liberal tastings. The same could be said for some of the charcuterers. The initial impression was of a more accessible, interesting market than previously. However, it still lacks the feeling of lively competition and practical purpose that makes real everyday markets atmospheric. There are relatively few vegetable stalls or butchers (quite a lot of cryovac produce too). (If my impression is wrong, please correct me.) There are quite a few boutique producers but many show a too-strong tendency to head down the cute-expensive path. At least I found some absolutely delicious fudge from Burnt Sugar — if you have the chance, try their ginger or sea salt varieties!
Burnt Sugar fudge
You still get the feeling at this market that cooked food dominates. There is a real thronging of people to buy lunch or snacks, and searching the internet reveals more comments about ready-to-eat food than produce at Borough Market. The atmosphere at this market is good and on a warm day is vibrant. But despite the pleasant experience with the cheesemongers (and I’m sure there are other gems in the market), I don’t feel it’s a place for people who love food and cooking without trendy pretence – it seems very much a reflection of food-as-lifestyle.
Borough Market crowd


British supermarkets differ greatly from Australian ones. Ready-meals take up whole refrigerator aisles. Environmentally suspect packaged portions dominate in lines that Australians would expect to find loose at the deli counter. Conversely, the quality of unpackaged meat at the butcher’s counter is miles ahead of that in Australia. Dairy sections have an excellent range of cheeses. The quality of in-house bakery lines is generally better too, and there is more diversity and quality in the cakes and patisserie lines sold. (Let’s face it, in-house bakery/patisserie lines in Australian supermarkets are mostly aimed about one millimetre above garbage.) British supermarkets have a greater range of baking ingredients and, increasingly, the quality of fruit and veg should shame the Australian giants, Coles and Woolworths/Safeway (and the price difference between the two countries for fresh produce is much, much smaller than it was a decade ago). Before you think I’m on a love-in with Sainsbury and Tesco, I assure you that the presence of more basic multicuisine ingredients (from tofu to kaffir lime leaves) in Australian supermarkets and the generally more friendly and efficient service (yes, even if your Safeway only has seemingly-vapid sixteen-year-olds on the tills) is enough for me to embrace Coles and Safeway.
Sainsbury baguette and flower holder
An interesting development at Sainsbury and M&S (and, presumably, Tesco and Waitrose) was the greatly increased detail in labelling. The bag for the potatoes showed the variety, which farmer/producer grew them and where. The same was the case for the bacon I bought. This is impressive, catering to the burgeoning demand for information on provenance. In Australia this is still primarily a point of discussion about meat, if at all. Imagine asking your supermarket assistant where the bacon was from! Australians aren’t yet (hopefully never) as scared of food as the British seem to be – in Britain there is more reason, given the BSE and foot-and-mouth scares, the presence of salmonella in poultry, a very strong animal rights lobby, and (broadly) a loss of understanding of food during the twentieth century. If enthusiasm for this kind of labelling were to rise in Australia, it would require a radical change in the food industry, challenging large, faceless producers and suppliers and introducing a public accountability that the supermarkets and many others would be distinctly uncomfortable with.
Detailed food labels 1
Detailed food labels 2
Detailed food labels 3

Dodgy food

Of course, you can’t expect everything on the British food scene to change overnight (or in a decade, say). There are still patisseries in Soho serving outrageously priced little choux pastries filled with chocolate cream. The cream is that cheap-bastard favourite: crème pâtissière with lots of cornflour and little (if any) egg. GBP 4.00 (A$10.00). The establishment (like so many others everywhere) is in most of the guidebooks and presumably survives on past glory and the gullibility of guidebook readers (I’m sure we’ve all fallen for these places many a time).

And on a starkly different wavelength, Harrods is now an outlet for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Krispy Kreme at Harrods


The Tube
I came over all warm and fuzzy as the beautifully calming Voice on The Tube announced ‘This … is Waterloo.’ She’s new since last I was there. Much nicer than the ‘Pleasemindthegapbetweenthetrainandtheplatform’ man. My Eurostar train awaited.

– DM
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

Greed, business and bookselling

Australian book retail chain Angus & Robertson (A&R) has got itself in the poo. The mainstream media (Fairfax) ran stories briefly (08 August) about A&R attempting to screw its suppliers by demanding payments to cover their ‘gap’ in profitability. To put it more clearly, Angus & Robertson is using the same sort of approach that Australian supermarkets have to the products they carry — ‘pay us to stock your product or go away’. More detail can be found in an article at Crikey (subscription). Suppliers/publishers who don’t yield enough volume profit for the bookseller retailer are being billed for large sums in order to obtain the right to continue to supply the retailer.

I’ve heard that a representative of A&R stood up at the Australian Booksellers’ Association conference a few weeks back and said something to the effect of ‘we aren’t a bookseller, we’re a retailer’ and more about profits and products. So there we have it.

Two of the suppliers mentioned in media coverage are Tower Books and Thames & Hudson. They are prominent in areas such as architecture, art, design, some literature and more (including many French-published food titles). If A&R loses Tower Books (and they seem to have, given the correspondence between them) one would assume that no Taschen books will be available from A&R (Taschen do all sorts of popular books on art and artists, design, culture and photography) as Tower is the Australian supplier. The same is the case for DC Comics. And Thames & Hudson has an impressive catalogue of titles in similar areas. It would seem that A&R doesn’t deserve anyone’s business if they think selling books is about extorting money from suppliers and only giving consumers whatever A&R deems massively profitable enough to bother with.

UPDATE: A nice description of A&R’s greed and various parts of the correspondence can be found at Lightbulb

– DM

Review – Botanical, by Paul Wilson

Botanical front cover

Botanical: Inside the iconic brasserie. Recipes by Paul Wilson. Photography by William Meppem. (2007: Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne.) RRP AUD 85

Overview: An impressive ‘chef’s book’ by respected Melbourne chef Paul Wilson, Botanical is both a serious cookbook and a self-congratulatory piece about the restaurant (the Botanical). Intended for serious home cooks or other chefs, this is perhaps the first local heavy-duty ‘chef’s book’ Australia has seen, with recipes often encompassing many steps and long lists of ingredients. (It’s possible Tetsuya competes in detail — I haven’t been able to look at a copy to compare.)

Botanical photography 1

Good bits: The recipes are interesting and span an impressive range. Emphasis is placed on local ingredients. Excellent design and photography. Another feather in the hat of the publishers Hardie Grant.

Recipe examples: wood-roasted calamari with chorizo sausage, olives and smoked paprika; gingerbread hotcakes with caramelised pineapple; slow-roasted beef blade over organic baby beetroots with red wine and beetroot sauce; grapefruit tart with sauternes jelly.

Botanical photography 4Botanical photography 3

Bad bits: One clanger: the ‘Conversions’ page (p18) lists a tablespoon as being 15ml, which it definitely isn’t in Australia (20ml). The publishers assure me that the error will be fixed in the next print run. Australians can ignore the typo, while overseas readers will just find some things a little underflavoured.

I feel the book needed tighter editing. The introduction, history of the restaurant, etc, are overly long and a touch repetitive, reading too much like a piece of untempered self-congratulation. Chris Lucas (the owner former owner) gets to write a recommendation of Riedel glassware in the section on wine and that seems out of place in this sort of volume.

A set of ingredient notes makes clear that flat-leaf parsley is the variety to be used in all recipes, but then every recipe with parsley re-states that it is ‘flat-leaf parsley’, making the original note unnecessary.

Wilson’s passion for the best produce is admirable, but comments like ‘make a worthwhile investment by buying real buffalo milk mozzarella’ overlook the fact that the variable quality of Australian mozzarella (shaggy moo or normal moo) can make it an extremely bad investment on some days. Commentary on the recipes is also too loose sometimes.

Botanical photography 2

Comments: Most of my negatives are unimportant when it comes to the cooking itself, thankfully. It’s about time we saw a local book of this calibre in Australia! It won’t be for everyone (because of the ambition it requires), and it certainly reflects Paul Wilson’s style — solid classical cookery with modern flourishes, complex restaurant dishes, frequent nods to cuisines of the Mediterranean, and an affection for quail eggs, truffles and local seafood. This is an attractive large-format volume (almost 30x30cm) and I dread to think how many people will use it as a coffee table piece rather than actually cooking from it.

– DM


to order Botanical, by Paul Wilson Books for Cooks AU | Amazon UK

New product: Belgian chocolate at Coles supermarkets

Rarely does my heart skip a beat in the confectionery aisle of an Australian supermarket. In France or Germany I could happily fill a shopping trolley with a chocolatey smile on my face. In Australia I mope my way down the aisle, pausing only for the occasional stop-gap measure to allay my chocolate cravings.

For those who don’t know, there is no decent chocolate available at an average-consumer pricepoint in Australia. We get to choose from Cadbury’s oddness (though much better than the product of the British namesake), Mars’s mediocrity (in the form of Dove) and Nestlé’s disappointments. Beside these are Lindt and the marketing success of their Lindor balls, and just occasionally Milka (no reason to cheer).

To be fair, I think I should mention those supermarket lines that are my accepted craving suppressants. For sweet-caramelly-greasy fixes: Lindt Excellence Milk, Nestlé Double Blend (milk, emergencies only). For cocoa-everyday fixes: Cadbury Old Gold (the original version: 45% cocoa solids; not the dry, gritty 72% one). With bits: Lindt Excellence Orange Intense (excellent!), Cadbury Old Gold Roast Almond, Nestlé Noir Intense Cherry. (Note that the Lindt and Nestlé Noir are outside the everyday chocolate pricebracket.)

I’m telling you all this to set the scene for a new product at Coles supermarkets. A housebrand Belgian chocolate You’ll love Coles – Belgian milk chocolate in milk, dark and milk-fruit-nut. Australia is experiencing the start of the luxury housebrand product phenomenon; something which started in the UK about seven years ago. Alas, the psychology of premium products and supermarkets in Australia doesn’t readily lend itself to actual, real, serious quality on a supermarket shelf. Whereas the UK supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury introduced quite impressive premium housebrand chocolates to their shelves, I wasn’t about to hold my breath about the Coles version.

Coles Belgian milk chocolate block

Lucky, too, for the Coles product is no great bonus for the Aussie supermarket experience, despite the surprisingly good pricing (under A$4.00/250g). The milk version (26.5% cocoa solids) is very sweet, with a mild cocoa flavour. It has a nice snap, with a quick melt, and the mouthfeel is smooth and thick; quite delightful in comparison to the products mentioned above. You can’t expect much of this sort of low-cocoa milk chocolate, so at least the textural positives are a winner. The dark version (46% cocoa solids) is sweet and a bit waxy, with a strong vanilla note and reasonably good melt. It is rather insipid and I don’t feel like eating the rest of the block. The milk-fruit-nut version is just sweet, with the added sweetness of the fruit drowning out the already pale cocoa notes.

A little bit of googling revealed that Coles is sourcing this chocolate from the Belgian company Italo-Suisse, who in turn source their couverture from Callebaut. Callebaut is a great place to start for excellent chocolate (their couverture is used by a large number of quality chocolate producers and chocolatiers), but somewhere along the way — either in a custom formula requested by Italo-Suisse, or in the addition of other ingredients (more sugar?) by Italo-Suisse — it becomes an unimpressive product designed to appeal to overly sweet palates and seduce with the uncommon (in Australia) long, creamy mouthfeel. What a pity. Still, a better option than many other things on the supermarket shelf.

– DM